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Prentiss finds home in arena ball

[6/22/04]Kevin Prentiss has seen just about everything the football world can throw at him.

His career has taken him to six teams, in five different leagues, in two countries. He’s been cut, injured and doubted. Coaches have marveled at his talent in one breath, only to question his size and durability in the next.

The former Warren Central star never has stopped believing in himself, though, and all of the hard work and perserverance finally appears to be paying off.

Prentiss has found a home with the Memphis Xplorers of arenafootball2, a minor league for the better-known Arena Football League. In eight games, he’s caught 70 passes for 903 yards and 20 touchdowns all team-highs and has returned six kickoffs for touchdowns, two short of the af2 season record.

It’s the kind of productivity and big-play ability Prentiss was known for throughout his career at WC, Hinds Community College and Mississippi State, but hasn’t had a chance to show until now.

“It’s the type of game that’s built for wide receivers and little guys like myself,” said Prentiss, who is listed at 5-foot-8 and 155 pounds. “I could play arena ball for the rest of my career, but if I get the chance to go to the NFL I’m going to take it.”

Prentiss has had chances at the NFL before, as well as nearly every other league between there and af2.

He caught 58 passes for 1,066 yards and five touchdowns in two seasons at Mississippi State, and helped the team to its only Southeastern Conference Western Division title in 1998. In the SEC championship game against eventual national champion Tennessee, a 24-14 loss, he had 233 total yards including an 83-yard punt return for a touchdown that briefly gave the Bulldogs a 14-10 lead in the fourth quarter.

For all his skills, however, scouts still questioned his size and durability, and he went undrafted. He signed a free agent contract with the Indianapolis Colts the day after the 1999 draft and impressed coaches throughout the preseason. In the end, however, the Colts decided to keep another small receiver and kick returner, Terrence Wilkins, and let Prentiss go in the final round of cuts. It was a pattern that soon became all too familiar.

Prentiss was invited to the New York Giants’ training camp the next year, but was cut in the preseason. In 2001 he played well in four preseason games with the British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football League, but was cut again.

“It was shocking to me that I got cut. I had played pretty well,” Prentiss said. “They would always tell me they’re going to call me back. But it never happens.”

Later that spring, Prentiss finally found a home and a starring role. He signed on with the Memphis Maniax of the XFL, the football league founded by World Wrestling Entertainment owner Vince McMahon.

Prentiss broke out in the XFL, then broke down. He had 25 receptions for 383 yards in eight games, until he tore an anterior cruciate ligament halfway through the season. While he was rehabbing the injury, he no longer had to worry about being cut from a team the XFL folded after one season.

“I loved the XFL. There was a lot of competition out there,” Prentiss said. “I wish you still had it around. The win bonus you got $2,500 if your team won was great.”

With his latest opportunity gone, his knee injured, and his name recognition slowly beginning to fade, Prentiss faced a crossroads in his life. For the first time, he began to wonder if all of the critics had been right, and if it was time to give up on football.

“I kind of got down at times during the rehab. It had me thinking if what they were saying about me, if it was true, if it was really worth it,” Prentiss said, adding that being injured was the worst part of his career. “Getting cut is never fun, but you can get over that. Injuries are a mental thing that can stay with you.”

Prentiss rehabbed the knee injury, and waited for another opportunity. He had a brief stint with the Carolina Cobras of the Arena Football League, but it lasted only four games at the end of the 2001 season.

He sat out the 2002 season, then got his next opportunity through a chance encounter several years before.

Xplorers head coach Danton Barto had met Prentiss at a junior college all-star game when the receiver was at Hinds, and several members of the Memphis coaching staff knew of Prentiss’ abilities. A deal was hammered out, and Prentiss joined the Xplorers prior to the 2003 season.

“He’s an elusive guy. He’s able to change speeds so quickly that defenders can’t adjust,” Barto said. “He changes speeds during his patterns better than any guy I’ve ever seen.”

Prentiss made an immediate impact for the Xplorers. He averaged 102.5 yards per game and scored 20 touchdowns in the first eight games of the season, and was in the top-10 in six offensive categories.

Then, while returning a kick against Bossier City, disaster struck again. Prentiss broke the return, and had only the kicker to beat. The defender dove at Prentiss’ legs, they got tangled, and one of them snapped. The broken leg ended Prentiss’ season and left him frustrated again.

This time, though, there wasn’t the same kind of despair that had accompanied the ACL injury. The future wasn’t uncertain. He still had a spot with the Xplorers, and they were happy to see him return from the broken leg this season.

And returning has been his biggest weapon.

Prentiss, who plays offensive specialist for the Xplorers, ranks sixth in af2 with 1,897 all-purpose yards. His six kick returns for touchdowns is two short of the league record, and opponents have started to kick the ball away from him.

“They’ve started doing onside kicks or kicking it out of bounds. It’s kind of funny,” Prentiss said with a laugh. “When they do it, I’ll yell over to the bench and tell them to kick it to me, just to mess with them.”

The lack of return opportunities could keep Prentiss from getting the record. At first, it wouldn’t have been a big deal to miss it. He wasn’t even sure what the record was. Now, however, it is something he’d like to achieve.

“It’s not a goal. But since I’m this close I want to get it,” Prentiss said. “I didn’t know what the record was until they told me about it.”

If Prentiss keeps up his torrid pace, he may not be in Memphis much longer. He hopes to get an offer from an Arena Football League team for next season, and maybe another shot at the NFL down the road.

Based on what he’s seen the last two seasons, Barto has joined the legions of coaches and fans who swear by Prentiss’ ability.

“I wish somebody would bring him in as a kick returner, at least,” Barto said. “On our confined field, what he’s done is amazing. And on a bigger field it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t do the same things.”

Prentiss knows he still has some things to prove. He has conquered some of the questions about his size, but now there are more about his durability.

In addition to the torn ACL and broken leg, he missed one game this season with a bruised knee. He hasn’t played a full season since leaving Mississippi State. Still, he said the doubts and injuries have made him work harder and become stronger, and that he feels he can play for another five or six years.

“I don’t know if challenge is the right word, but I’ve had to prove myself everywhere I’ve been,” the 27-year-old Prentiss said. “I’ve got a lot of football left in me.”